The Maple Leafs Should Pass on Past-His-Prime Joe Thornton

It’s been a busy week in Leafland.

The Toronto Maple Leafs selected skilled Russian winger Rodion Amirov with the 15th overall pick at last Tuesday’s NHL Entry Draft. They signed Toronto native Wayne Simmonds to a one-year deal last Friday, just minutes after the opening of free agency. Later that day, they found the top-four defenceman they’ve been looking for, inking TJ Brodie to a four-year contract. And they even added Stanley Cup champion Zach Bogosian on Saturday night after shipping Andreas Johnsson off to the New Jersey Devils.

Related: Brodie Signing Makes Maple Leafs Defence a Strength

Talk about a new look for the team. But according to the latest rumours, the Leafs aren’t done just yet. Over the past couple days, the hot topic in Toronto is free agent centre “Jumbo” Joe Thornton and his apparent connection to the Maple Leafs.

San Jose Sharks Joe Thornton
Free agent Joe Thornton is the latest player linked to the Toronto Maple Leafs. (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)

The legendary Thornton needs no introduction: over 23 years in the NHL, the 41-year-old has played more than 1600 games, scored more than 1500 points, won the Hart and Art Ross trophies in 2006, and came within two games of winning a Stanley Cup in 2016. Now clearly in the twilight of his illustrious career, the London, Ont., native is looking for one last shot at that ever-elusive Cup and likely has his eyes set on Toronto.

And per James Mirtle of The Athletic, the interest is reportedly mutual, with the Maple Leafs front office aggressively pursuing Thornton, ready to offer him a one-year deal in the $1-1.5 million range with plans to play him as their third-line centre (from “Mirtle: What I’m hearing about the Maple Leafs pursuit of Joe Thornton,” – The Athletic – 10/13/2020).

The Maple Leafs are reportedly ready to offer Thornton a one-year contract around $1-1.5 million. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

But at 41, Jumbo Joe isn’t what he used to be, and his skillset certainly isn’t a clear answer to the Maple Leafs’ needs. Let’s dive into why Toronto should pass on a past-his-prime Thornton.

Thornton Isn’t What He Used to Be

Hockey is a game first and foremost – and games should be fun. So don’t get me wrong: Thornton to the Maple Leafs would undoubtedly be fun. Just imagine Thornton, a 23-year vet in search of glory, finally going all the way with the Maple Leafs, a franchise in search of their first Stanley Cup since 1967. The story practically writes itself! Both he and the team would go down in hockey history forever.

But the reality is that hockey’s more than a game – it’s a business. Thornton may draw some fans and sell some jerseys, but the Leafs are in the business of winning first and foremost. Does he actually help them win? Does he improve their roster?

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: What Joe Thornton Would Bring to the Team

Based on Thornton’s age, recent performance, and apparent decline, the answer is likely no. He put up a career-worst 31 points in 70 games last season — the first time he’s failed to score at least half a point per game in a season. His 1.48 points per hour (P/60) at 5-on-5 ranked 127th out of all NHL centres last season — hardly even fourth line production.

Joe Thornton San Jose Sharks
In 2019-20 Thornton failed to score half a point per game for the first time in his career. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Points obviously don’t tell the whole story, though. What about Thornton’s overall on-ice value? Well, according to Evolving Hockey‘s Goals Above Replacement (GAR) model, the San Jose Sharks’ centre finished the season at just 1 GAR, indicating that he was more or less a replacement-level player.

Dom Luszczyszyn‘s Game Score Value Added (GSVA) model is even lower on Thornton: his -0.2 rating tells us that he was actually just below replacement level last season. And you really shouldn’t be paying more than the league minimum for these types of players.

Joe Thornton projection
Thornton’s Game Score Value Added (GSVA) projection. From “Mirtle: What I’m hearing about the Maple Leafs pursuit of Joe Thornton” – The Athletic – 10/13/2020

The decline has been harsh, and there’s really no reason to believe that Thornton will miraculously regain his form. At 41 years of age and with more than 1800 NHL games under his belt (counting playoffs), the 6-foot-4 centre has tons of mileage. He was never the fleetest of foot, but after playing through a torn ACL and MCL in the 2016/17 playoffs, Thornton’s footspeed has taken another hit.

The Leafs already have the 37-year-old Spezza and made a $1.5 million bet on a declining 32-year-old Simmonds this offseason. Unless their goal is to build the slowest fourth line in the NHL, I’m not sure there’s a great fit for Thornton in Toronto.

The Maple Leafs Have Better Options at Centre

Okay, Thornton may not be a world-beater anymore, but maybe he’s still good enough to play centre for the Maple Leafs. They’re relatively thin at the position anyway and could use some depth. And fair enough: the Leafs could use an upgrade at 4C or even 3C (what team couldn’t?). I’m just not sold that Thornton is any better than the team’s existing options.

Let’s start with offensive production.

5v5 offensive production, Thornton vs. Leafs centres
Offensive production of Thornton vs. Maple Leafs centres. Data from naturalstattrick.com

As you can see, Thornton’s offence does not rank favourably compared to Toronto’s current choices at centre. He’s certainly not in the same class as the Leafs’ top-three in Auston Matthews, John Tavares, or Alexancer Kerfoot, and even Spezza lapped him this past season. Thornton is more or less on par with Pierre Engvall, who has shown some ability to play up the middle. But while their production is similar, the 24-year-old Swede is a much better skater than Thornton and arguably offers more versatility and overall value. And it appears that the stats agree.

Thornton vs. Maple Leafs centres by GAR, 2019/20
Thornton vs. Maple Leafs centres by GAR. Data from Evolving-Hockey.com

By overall on-ice value as measured by GAR, Thornton falls to the bottom of the pack, largely due to his negative defensive impacts. Engvall, on the other hand, was a boon to the Maple Leafs’ defence, particularly on the penalty kill, making him a valuable piece.

Related: Maple Leafs Acquire Grit and Skill in Anderson Trade

Speaking of the penalty kill, Thornton doesn’t play there, either. The Maple Leafs’ top penalty killers last season were Mitch Marner, Ilya Mikheyev, Zach Hyman, and Kasperi Kapanen. With Kapanen gone, that fourth spot is obviously up for grabs, and Engvall, the team’s fifth-most used penalty killer last season, is the natural choice to replace him. But if you’re bringing in Thornton for at least $1 million, that probably means you’re getting rid of Engvall, who makes $1.25 million. Essentially, you’d be replacing Engvall with a player that isn’t necessarily any better offensively and creating an additional hole on the penalty kill. It just doesn’t add up to me.

San Jose Sharks' Joe Thornton
The addition of Thornton could create holes elsewhere in the lineup, particularly on the penalty kill. (AP Photo/Josie Lepe)

Could Thornton work in Toronto? Sure. It’s plausible that he rediscovers his offensive touch next to more talented linemates, and you aren’t risking too much on a cheapish one-year deal. No one’s doubting the fun factor, either. The issue for the Leafs arises when they make a habit of doling out these one-year gambles on aging vets like Simmonds, Bogosian, and now possibly Thornton.

Related: The Maple Leafs Need Grit, but Simmonds Isn’t the Answer

The Maple Leafs wanted to get harder to play against, but a misstep like this might just make things harder on themselves.


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